Béla Bartók

(25 March 1881, Nagyszentmiklós - 26 September 1945, New York)


Béla Viktor János Bartók was a Hungarian composer, pianist, ethnomusicologist, and teacher, noted for the Hungarian flavor of his major musical works, which include orchestral works, string quartets, piano solos, several stage works, a cantata, and a number of settings of folk songs for voice and piano.

Béla showed signs of being musically gifted from an early age, by the age of 4 he could already play around 40 pieces on the piano. The next year, his mother (who was a pianist) began to formally teach him. By the age of 9 he was already composing small dance pieces, and two years later he gave his first public performance where he even played The Course of the Danube, one of his own compositions. In the 1899-1903 period, Bartók studied piano under István Thomán (a former student of Franz Liszt), and composition under János Koessler at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest. He developed rapidly as a pianist but less so as a composer. Luckily, after he discovered the music of Richard Strauss in 1902, his enthusiasm for composition was greatly stimulated. In 1903, he wrote his first major orchestral work, Kossuth, a symphonic poem which honored Lajos Kossuth, hero of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848.

Shortly after Bartók completed his studies in 1903, he and the Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály (who became his lifelong friend) embarked on the intention to revitalize Hungarian music. A vast reservoir of authentic Hungarian peasant music was subsequently made known by the research of the two composers. Both composers not only transcribed many folk tunes for the piano and other media but also incorporated into their original music the melodic, rhythmic, and textural elements of peasant music.

Set aside the influences of folk Hungarian music, around 1907, Bartók began to be influenced by the French composer Claude Debussy, whose compositions Kodály had brought back from Paris. That same year, Bartók became a piano professor at the Royal Academy (a position which he held until 1934), thus freeing himself from touring Europe as a pianist and from any financial constrains. Among his notable students were Fritz Reiner, Sir Georg Solti, György Sándor, Erno Balogh, and Lili Kraus. After Bartók moved to the United States, he taught Jack Beeson and Violet Archer.

Bartók's large-scale orchestral works were still in the style of Johannes Brahms and Richard Strauss, but he wrote a number of small piano pieces which showed his growing interest in folk music. The first piece to show clear signs of this new interest is the String Quartet No. 1 in A minor (1908), part of a series of 6 string quartets, which contains folk-like elements. The quartets parallel and illuminate Bartók’s stylistic development: in the second quartet (1915–17) Berber (Amazigh) elements reflect the composer’s collecting trip to North Africa; in the third (1927) and fourth (1928) there is a more intensive use of dissonance; and in the fifth (1934) and sixth (1939) there is a reaffirmation of traditional tonality.

In 1911, Bartók wrote his only opera, Bluebeard's Castle, dedicated to his first wife, Márta Ziegler. Bluebeard's Castle received only one revival, in 1936, before Bartók emigrated. The technique is comparable to that used by the French composer Claude Debussy in his opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), and Bartók’s opera has other impressionistic qualities as well. 

Right up until the outbreak of World War I (1914), he collected Hungarian, Slovakian, Romanian, and Bulgarian folk music, after which he returned to composing, writing the ballet The Wooden Prince (1914–16) and the String Quartet No. 2 in (1915–17), both influenced by Debussy. His most productive years were the two decades that followed the end of World War I in 1918, when his musical language was completely and expressively formulated. Bartók arrived at a vital and varied style, rhythmically animated, in which diatonic and chromatic elements are juxtaposed without incompatibility. Within these two creative decades, Bartók composed two concerti for piano and orchestra and one for violin; the Cantata Profana (1930), his only large-scale choral work; the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (1936) and other orchestral works; and several important chamber scores, including the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937). The same period saw Bartók expanding his activities as a concert pianist, playing in most of the countries of western Europe, the United States, and the Soviet Union.

Following the extended sphere of influence of the Nazi Germany over Hungary, after a second concert tour of the United States in 1940, Bartók immigrated there the same year. He was soon appointed as research assistant in music at Columbia University, New York City, which enabled him to continue working with folk music. Bartók’s last years were marked by the ravages of leukemia, which often prevented him from teaching, lecturing, or performing. Nonetheless, he was able to compose the Concerto for Orchestra (1943), the Sonata for violin solo (1944), and all but the last measures of the Piano Concerto No. 3 (1945). When he died, his last composition, a viola concerto, was left an uncompleted mass of sketches (completed by Tibor Serly, 1945).

From its roots in the music he performed as a pianist -- Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms -- Bartók's own style evolved through several stages into one of the most distinctive and influential musical idioms of the first half of the twentieth century. The complete assimilation of elements from varied sources -- the Classical masters, contemporaries like Debussy, folk songs -- is one of the signal traits of Bartók's music. The polychromatic orchestral textures of Richard Strauss had an immediate and long-lasting effect upon Bartók's own instrumental sense, evidenced in masterpieces such as Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (1936) and the Concerto for Orchestra (1945).

The composer’s writings, especially on folk music, were compiled and edited by Benjamin Suchoff in Béla Bartók Essays (1976, reissued 1993) and Béla Bartók Studies in Ethnomusicology (1997). Hundreds of Bartók’s letters and relevant documents were collected and edited by Demény János (János Demény) in several books, most in Hungarian. Nearly 300 of these, also edited by Demény, appear in English in Béla Bartók Letters (1971).

Béla Bartók's influence spread in 4 major areas of music: composition, performance, pedagogy, and ethnomusicology. Nowadays he is considered one of the most important composers of the 20th century; he and Liszt are regarded as Hungary's greatest composers.

Here  you can find a list of compositions by Béla Bartók.